Around for as long as people can remember, The Jungle has grown more dangerous in some people’s eyes, drawing complaints even from other homeless encampments in Seattle.
It was midnight about 20 years ago, soon after the Rev. Rick Reynolds took over as executive director of Operation Nightwatch, a ministry that runs a drop-in center for people needing shelter. There, Reynolds saw a man weeping.
As Reynolds offered comfort, he learned the distraught man had just come from The Jungle, where his makeshift hut had just been destroyed by a city sweep.
The man was a Latin American immigrant who worked for the ferry system, as Reynolds recalled, and used the money he saved on housing to send home to his mother.
Even then, the city was grappling with what to do about The Jungle, a homeless encampment on a heavily wooded expanse of land stretching along I-5 from Sodo to Beacon Hill.
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On Tuesday night, when five people were shot there, two of them killed, the question arose again, with ever more urgency. While details are emerging, police said the gunmen appeared to be after drugs and money.
That wouldn’t surprise most people, who view The Jungle, as a lawless and dangerous place — one that continues to thrive despite periodic city sweeps.
“These are druggies, pimps, you name it,” said Kima Yandell, who runs a construction business in view of the Sodo edge of The Jungle.
It wasn’t always seen that way.
Nobody seems to know exactly when The Jungle came into being. Jordan Royer, who headed the Neighborhood Action Team in the Mayor Greg Nickels administration, and is the son of former Mayor Charley Royer, said the area was a regular neighborhood before I-5 came along in the 1960s. You can still spot foundations of the demolished homes, he said.
It may not have been long after that an encampment arose. In the late 1990s, when Sinan Demirel talked to Beacon Hill residents for a University of Washington doctoral dissertation on local homelessness, some told him they had lived next to The Jungle for decades.
Demirel, now a consultant for community groups working on homelessness, used to walk through the encampment himself. “I felt very comfortable,” he said. One Sunday morning, he recalled, he came upon a couple reading the Bible to each other in their tent.
He suspected mental-health problems had brought them to The Jungle, but he didn’t find them dangerous. He stayed for a visit.
Criminal element enters
“There are a full range of types,” said Reynolds of Jungle residents he has spoken with over the years. “A lot of people are there just short-term, because they broke up with girlfriends or got kicked out. Others are escaping some kind of responsibility.” Child-support issues rank high, he said.
“Once The Jungle was benign,” acknowledged Mariana Quarnstrom, who was president of the South Seattle Crime Prevention Council from 2000 to 2010, and whose husband has been a dentist on Beacon Hill for roughly 50 years. But at some point, maybe about 20 years ago she guessed, something changed. “The criminal element discovered The Jungle.”
On Beacon Hill, she said, residents started noticing people coming out of The Jungle and into the neighborhoods — sometimes to burglarize homes or sell drugs.
Things reached a boiling point in 2003. Neighbors were complaining loudly, and police agreed the area presented a chronic safety problem. The South Precinct had notebooks filled with the names of “hardened criminals and gang members living in The Jungle,” Royer recalled. They dealt in drugs, prostitution and trafficking stolen goods, he said.
Royer led an effort to work with neighbors and the various city, county and state entities that own the land to remove campers and clean up the area. Despite criticism from homeless advocates that residents had nowhere else to go, given the shortage of shelter beds, the city promised this effort would be lasting and effective.
It wasn’t. Periodic sweeps continued in the subsequent McGinn administration, but people keep coming back to The Jungle, although their numbers and perceived dangerousness has waxed and waned over time. Now, some say, the problem is worse than ever.
Yandell, the Sodo business owner, said she’s been harassed countless times by Jungle residents. “I’ve had people in my office threatening me,” she said. “I’ve had people go into the bathroom, close the door and stay there for more than an hour drinking a whole bottle of rubbing alcohol and a whole bottle of Scope.”
A problem for Nickelsville
“The Jungle has been a real problem for the tent city at Dearborn,” said Sharon Lee, executive director of the Low Income Housing Institute (LIHI). She stressed that the tent city there, known as Nickelsville and given various support services by LIHI, is legally sanctioned by the city, unlike The Jungle.
Residents of the illegal encampment, she said, frequently come over to Nickelsville, where she said they assault and harass people.
Even one recent resident of The Jungle, 54-year-old Mark Combs, said he felt the need to carry a knife to protect himself. “You have overdoses and things the police won’t even deal with,” said Combs, interviewed recently. “The police wouldn’t even come up in there until it was an overdose, or a shooting or, a stabbing.”
Seattle Police Department spokesman Sean Whitcomb said officers “will certainly patrol The Jungle on foot from time to time and will respond to community concerns.”
With Tuesday’s shooting, the community is certainly concerned and, at least for now, The Jungle once again has the city’s attention.